Bully


Bully

Being a victim of bullying is a lonely occupation, as Alex Libby knows.

(2012) Documentary (Weinstein) Kirk Smalley, David Long, Tina Long, Alex Libby, Ja’Meya Jackson, Kelby Johnson, Bob Johnson, Phillip Libby, Maya Libby, Devon Matthews, Barbara Primer, Laura Smalley, Trey Wallace, Kim Lockwood, Londa Johnson, Teryn Long, Troy Long. Directed by Lee Hirsch

 

There is no doubt that bullying is an epidemic problem around the United States; it has replaced parental abuse as the most common source of violence most kids will experience.

This documentary looks into the effects of bullying on five different families. Alex Libby is a sweet natured 12-year-old kid who enters East Middle School in Sioux City, Iowa with a mixture of fear and resignation. He has difficulty making friends and is tormented with verbal and physical abuse from bullies who take delight in disparaging his looks, calling him rude names.

Kelby Johnson is a 16-year-old in Tuttle, Oklahoma who was a star athlete and whose parents were active in their local church. When Kelby comes out as a lesbian, she is ostracized, tormented and run over with a mini-van. Her parents find that their conservative Christian friends will no longer speak to them. Her dad offers to move to a larger city to escape the abuse but Kelby, showing great resolve, refuses. She has a support system of a loving family and loyal friends to back her up.

Ja’Meya Jackson has some of that as well but it’s difficult to get a lot of support in the juvenile lock-up facility in Yazoo County, Mississippi. The 14-year-old had been bullied so thoroughly and was so angry and afraid that she took her mother’s handgun on board the school bus in a misguided effort to get the bullies to stop.

David and Tina Long are loving parents. Their sons Teryn and Troy are pretty well adjusted but there is a great deal of sadness in their household. Their eldest son, Tyler Long committed suicide at the age of 17 years old, found by his father hanging in his closet after years of unrelenting bullying in their Murray County, Georgia community and little to no help from school officials after numerous complaints. The Longs are determined to make Tyler’s action count for something.

Kirk and Laura Smalley feel the same way. They have just buried their son Ty who at age 11 killed himself after non-stop bullying. Kirk, outwardly a simple man in a rural community, Perkins Oklahoma, is determined to help other kids who went through the pain his son did and put a stop to bullying. He founds an organization, Stand for the Silent, dedicated to providing a voice for children who are being bullied.

All of these stories (and many others like them) are heartbreaking and inspire feelings of compassion. Watching Alex stoically endure the abuse certainly makes the heart ache for him, not to mention bring forth feelings of admiration for a young man who has an enormous reserve of strength (he also has a great smile that lights up a room). His mother is torn apart by feelings of inadequacy, thinking that she is failing as a mother because she’s not protecting her son.

The truth is that the failure isn’t hers. School districts have long treated bullying as a natural product of growing up. “Boys will be boys,” seems to be the most common response, delivered with a shrug and a pair of “what can you do?” outstretched arms.

There are no easy answers and the film provides none. However there doesn’t seem to be much of a message here beyond “bullying is bad” which is a bit of a no-brainer. There’s no attempt at trying to understand what causes kids to bully. I would be willing to bet that there is something going on in their homes that creates such fear that causes the need to take it out on other kids, because bullying is and always has been an outgrowth of fear. Whether it is fear of something different or fear of being bullied themselves, most bullies are reacting to something. Of course, there is always the occasional sociopath who gets their jollies from inflicting pain but by and large bullying is learned behavior. It doesn’t occur without a cause.

I would have also appreciated more diversity in the stories here. Not that Ja’Meya (whose mother shows great compassion and tenacity) and Kelby (who I also admired for her courage in refusing to run from the bullying) didn’t deserve to have their stories told. However, judging from the film bullying is a small town problem, mostly confined to the Bible Belt and more rural communities.

Bullying is in fact a universal epidemic. It exists nearly everywhere that there are kids, from exclusive prep schools in the Northeast to urban schools in big cities to enlightened communities in California. Hirsch should know that; he was a victim of bullying in his youth in Long Island (as I was in mine in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles). You don’t get that sense here and I think it does a disservice to its own message because of it.

However despite these flaws the message here is still a powerful one, so much so that I’m willing to ignore some of the film’s missed opportunities in order to call attention to it. This is a movie that should be seen by every student in America, and by most of their parents. This should be a topic of conversation at the dinner table. Bullying can be stopped; it takes the unity of students, parents, teachers and administrators in order to do it. Standing up together makes us stronger; it also protects us from bullies who tend to prey on the weak and the defenseless.

Seeing this makes me regret that in my own school days I didn’t stand up for those who were isolated and alone. I wish in my own school days I had befriended those who needed it. It also bears repeating that bullying isn’t always done just with fists or physicality; it’s also done with words. Joking about sexual orientation, physical appearance or socially awkward behavior might be good for a few cheap laughs but you never know how devastating those words can be in someone’s life. Whether in your workplace, your church, your neighborhood or your school, there are usually people who don’t fit in and who whether consciously or unconsciously get excluded. Adult or child, taking the time to reach out to those who don’t fit in seems to me to be the right thing to do and if this movie gets across that message, then it is as important a film as any you’ll ever see.

REASONS TO GO: Excellently captures the effects of bulling on kids and their families. Heartbreaking at times but a message that needs to be seen by kids and their parents everywhere.

REASONS TO STAY: No interviews with bullies or their families to get any sort of insight as to why kids bully. Fails to get across that this is a universal problem that is prevalent in all social stratums and all over the country.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some rough language, depictions of kid-on-kid violence and some fairly adult conversations about teen suicide.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally slapped with an “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America for bad language which was appealed by the distributor, arguing that would exclude the audience the movie was intended for. When that appeal was denied the rating was surrendered and initially the plan was to release the movie unrated. However after a large outcry the MPAA relented and the filmmakers edited some instances of bad language (although a crucial scene in which a child is bullied on a school bus was left intact) and the film finally received a “PG-13” rating.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/21/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The movie can be considered to be critically acclaimed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Laramie Inside Out

ELLEN DEGENERES LOVERS: The movie has been championed by the talk show host and was at least partially inspired by an appearance on her show by the mom of Carl Walker Hoover, a young man who endured anti-gay bullying until he was driven to commit suicide at the age of 11 in 2009.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Lady

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Hotel Rwanda


Hotel Rwanda

Even all these nuns couldn't pray Don Cheadle into the Oscar he well-deserved.

(2004) True Life Drama (United Artists) Don Cheadle, Nick Nolte, Sophie Okonedo, Desmond Dube, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Joaquin Phoenix, Antonio David Lyons, David O’Hara, Lebo Mashile, Jean Reno, Cara Seymour, Thulani Nyembe. Directed by Terry George

 

The thing about human beings, is that even when you hit us in the face with a two by four, we still don’t get it. Many of us read the history books about the Holocaust and the Nazi Final Solution, Hitler’s attempt to exterminate Jews, Gypsies and millions of other people he didn’t like. We read about how many people turned a blind eye to the horrors of the 1930s and ’40s and we comfort ourselves by saying, “I’d never do that.”

And yet we do. The same thing happened in Rwanda in 1994, and nobody seemed to notice. It’s happening now, in Darfur, but few speak up. The consequences of silence can be terrible. Ask the Tutsis of Rwanda, if you can find any. There are significantly fewer of them now.

Paul Ruesesabagina (Cheadle) lived in Rwanda in 1994. He was the assistant manager of the swank Hotel Des Milles Colline, and a good one. Calm, efficient and competent, he used bribery, flattery and an impeccable sense of style to please his guests and grease the wheels of a corrupt system in the former Belgian colony that is now Rwanda. He lived a life of quiet comfort with his family.

But there are storm clouds on the horizon. The Belgians, while they occupied their former colony, had arbitrarily divided the people into two “tribes” — the lighter skinned, smaller-nosed were dubbed Tutsis and were given the authority to help them run the country. Inexplicably, when the Belgians left, they gave power to the Hutus. Animosities over years of oppression boiled over into a genocidal hatred, whipped up by a radio announcer/importer named George Rutuganda (Kae-Kazim).

Paul, a Hutu, is unconcerned at first. When his brother-in-law comes to warn him of impending disaster, he dismisses the warnings as hysteria. Then it begins, suddenly, brutally, given the excuse of the murder of the Rwandan president, ostensibly by Tutsi rebels, with whom a peace treaty has just been signed under the good auspices of the UN and the commander of their peacekeeping forces, Colonel Oliver (Nolte).

Now, Paul is faced with friends, neighbors and employees who are at risk because they are Tutsis. Paul’s wife Tatiana (Okonedo, previously seen in Dirty Pretty Things) is also Tutsi, as are his children. His safe world crumples amidst anarchy, chaos and brutal violence. Men, women and children are slaughtered by machetes, hacked to pieces by the hundreds. Paul and his family barely escape the carnage and make it to the hotel, where white European guests are panicking, trying to get out of a country gone berserk. Refugees, orphans left by a Red Cross worker (Seymour) begin to pour into the hotel. Paul, realizing that turning them away would be tantamount to a death sentence, takes them in, confident that he can wait out the storm until the west sends help.

But help is not forthcoming. The Americans, stung by their experiences in Somalia, don’t wish to walk into another hornet’s nest. The rest of the European nations follow suit. As the foreign nationals are all evacuated, Paul realizes that they must save themselves. And in order to do that, he must maintain the illusion that the Hotel des Milles Collines is still a five-star resort, a place of style where even the generals and butchers who preside at massacres can go to feel civilized.

Hotel Rwanda is harrowing. There are many irrational men with guns committing acts of unspeakable horror, and Cheadle, as Paul, is our eyes and ears. There is a scene where he is driving down the River Road in the early morning fog on the advice of the monstrous Rutuganda, when the car begins to hit a very rough road. Paul, fearing they have gone off the road, orders the driver to stop. He gets out of the car to see if they are still on the pavement and is met with the sight of hundreds of bodies lying in the road as far as the eye can see, children whose faces are grimaces of terror and pain. After returning to the hotel, he goes to change his shirt, which has been stained with the blood of the corpses on the road in the employee locker room. Attempting to tie his tie, he at last gives in to the overwhelming emotions of what he has witnessed and breaks down. It is a powerful, powerful scene, performed by a brilliant actor.

Don Cheadle earned an Oscar nomination for his performance here, and there are a lot of compelling reasons why he should have won, instead of Jamie Foxx. Rather than making Paul a perfect hero, he humanizes him and becomes the audience’s surrogate. Like all of us, sometimes he just doesn’t know enough to get out of the rain, even when the thunder is booming in his ears. He is in nearly every scene and carries the movie. Cheadle characterizes Paul as a kind of African Oskar Schindler, which in truth, he was. Okonedo is also magnificent, for which she was duly recognized with a Best Supporting Actress nomination.

There is no denying the power of this film. You are immediately sucked into the situation, and affected by it. You may wonder, as I did, “Why the hell didn’t I know this was going on? Why didn’t my country do anything about it?” As an embittered reporter, played in a cameo by Phoenix says, “I think if people see this footage, they’ll say ‘Oh, my God, that’s horrible.’ And then they’ll go on eating their dinners.”

While I found Kinyarwanda to be a much more authentic and moving film (also about the Rwandan genocide, but more about how that country is moving towards reconciliation), this is certainly the most acclaimed film of the two and thus the easiest to locate for viewing/streaming/renting. Hotel Rwanda also boasts the performances of Cheadle and Okonedo, which are both outstanding and worth the rental fee alone.

This should be required viewing for every American and every European. We should see this powerful movie, not to feel bad about ourselves, but for us to look at the images of genocide and say “Not again. Not in my lifetime.” And, above all, to take action, to demand our leaders take action. We may feel safe and secure in our world. I’m sure the real Paul Ruesesabagina did. So did many German Jews in 1936. The storm clouds can gather anywhere – at any time.

WHY RENT THIS: Intense Oscar-nominated performances by Cheadle and Okonedo. A story that up until this movie was little seen or remembered in the West. Powerful and horrifying.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Is a bit Hollywoodized.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, some foul language and some extremely disturbing images. While it got a PG-13 rating on appeal, do consider very carefully the sensitivity of those viewing it before renting it for your family, although it is certainly something teens should see.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There is a featurette on the real Paul Ruesesabagina returning to Rwanda almost a decade after the genocide, and to specific locations depicted in the film (including the hotel and the site of the school massacre).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $33.9M on an unreported prodution budget; I’d be willing to guess that the movie broke even or made a little bit of money.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax

Wendy and Lucy


Wendy and Lucy

Lucy patiently awaits the return of Wendy.

 

(Oscilloscope) Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Larry Fessenden, Will Oldham, Walter Dalton, John Robinson, Marilyn Hickey, John Breen. Directed by Kelly Reichardt 

The world is not always an easy place to live in, but it’s particularly hard on those who have nothing. Sometimes even making a move from one place to another to find work can be an undertaking requiring the bravery of a soldier running into battle. 

Wendy (Williams) is down on her luck, having dwindling funds and no job. She is driving from Indiana to Alaska to (hopefully) find work in a cannery, although nothing is certain. She is alone save for her only friend in the world, Lucy (a golden retriever) whom she hangs onto like a life raft. The only love Wendy experiences in life comes from Lucy. 

Unfortunately, as often happens to those who can least afford it, disaster sets in. Her car breaks down in Portland, Oregon. Unnerved, she goes to a grocery store to get some dog food for Lucy, and winds up being arrested for shoplifting. By the time the mess is sorted out, Lucy is gone. The rest of the movie is taken up by Wendy’s search for her only friend in a place she doesn’t know. 

The plot is deceptively simple but undeniably effective. Most of us have, at one time or another, lived on the ragged edge, one paycheck away from utter disaster. We can all relate to having nothing, or being left with nobody. Director Reichardt brings a sense of realism to the movie that is palpable; there is little background music and nothing forced about the plot. 

There are a number of background characters who flit in and out, most notably Dalton as a security guard who is the only oasis of human kindness in the movie. Most of the other characters in the movie treat Wendy with indifference or contempt, which is how the homeless are generally regarded by most of us, as if they chose homelessness over a life of productivity. While some may have, every last one of them has feelings just like the rest of us and this film reminds us of that. 

Williams does a courageous job as Wendy, her face expressing so much of the internal dialogue, reflecting Wendy’s hope, terror and concern when need be. She has to carry the movie to a real extent and she does so with a good deal of dignity. This isn’t a glamorous role – far from it – but it’s a role that can make directors and producers sit up and take notice and hopefully Williams will get a few juicy roles out of this. 

This is the first movie I’ve seen by Reichardt although she’s done several, and I must say she’s quite a talent. She keeps the tone low (perhaps too low for those who prefer their movies more challenging) and quiet; this isn’t a movie that gets up in your face but rather, it sticks with you. She co-wrote the script along with original short story author Jonathan Raymond (the two also collaborated on Old Joy) and while this isn’t a strident call to arms, the spirit of Tom Joad is alive and well and living in this movie. That is quite the legacy as far as I’m concerned. 

WHY RENT THIS: A decent indie film about poverty and the bonds of love that are unshakable. Williams gives an impressive performance. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: It’s gut-wrenching at times. The overall tone is a bit slow. 

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be a bit rough, and the subject matter is a little on the mature side; even though there’s a dog involved, this is probably more for the more mature members of the family than the kids. 

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get into character, Williams did not bathe for the two weeks of shooting, wore no make-up and did not shave her legs or cut her fingernails. After shooting was completed, her friend actress Busy Philipps treated her to a manicure and pedicure. 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Reichardt also acts as a visiting professor of film and electronic arts at Bard College; she has thoughtfully included five short films by four of her colleagues made from 1979 through 2004. 

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.1M on an unreported production budget; the movie probably broke even or might have made a slight profit. 

FINAL RATING: 6/10 

TOMORROW: Zoom